Four years ago, the woman, now in her late fifties, had wandered away from her village in Ratnagiri district. Suffering from mental illness, she travelled over 1,000 km into Tamil Nadu, without knowing where she was going. There she lived the life of a destitute. On Thursday, in the most unlikely circumstances, the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown reunited her with her two children in Chennai.
A month ago, junior railway engineer Shyam Meena first spotted her alone at the Arokkonam railway station, a small town 70 km west of Chennai. She was healthy but dishevelled, he says, and had spent three-four days at the railway station.
“We first thought she had parted with her family and was waiting at the station. Soon, we realised she was suffering from some mental illness. She was staying at the railway station because everything else was shut and there was nowhere else to go,” Meena, 39, said.
She had not eaten food or drank water for several days. The railway officials fed her and when they asked her about her native place, she could remember just three things: the names of her village, taluka, and her two children.
“The lockdown had helped as she was forced to stay in one place. I started searching online for the village. It took us two days,” Meena said. He found the number for the local police station. Four hours after his first call to Ratnagiri police, the woman’s son was traced.
Meena had called the landline of Devrukh police station, a small town in Maharashtra, and spoken to the on-duty constable. Inspector Nisha Jadhav of Devrukh station said the constable, who answered the call, asked Meena to send the woman’s photo, and armed with it, started visiting villages around Devrukh. “We knew her surname, people with a particular surname live together in specific villages. In one of the villages, the sarpanch recognised her photo and gave her son’s number,” Jadhav said.
That night the son made a video call on Meena’s phone, and identified his mother. “But she had to be explained who he was,” Meena said.
The woman has been suffering from mental illness for over a decade. After her husband died, both her children were admitted to a government home while she lived in the village. Sunil Kamble, the former head of the government home, where the son was residing, said she could not regularly meet her children due to her illness. “About four years ago, she just left home. Since then they had been looking for her,” he said, adding that both her children were educated at the government home. While her daughter is married, her son has recently completed his education.
After the video call with their mother, they started preparing for police permissions to travel to Tamil Nadu. Despite the lockdown, police facilitated the paperwork to allow them to travel. The woman, meanwhile, stayed under the care of railway officials for a few days and was later shifted to a shelter home run by an NGO for mentally ill. On Thursday, her son and daughter reached Chennai and met her.
Officials with the NGO said since Maharashtra has a high number of Covid-19 cases, the children have decided that their mother would continue to stay in Tamil Nadu until the pandemic eases out.
Mohd Tarique, from NGO Koshish, said, “The problem is mentally ill destitute persons have always been neglected. Earlier, they would get food from a local shop or neighbourhood, now lockdown has shut even that source,” he said.
“The lockdown has affected several people psychologically. Destitute, who are mentally ill, are last in the priority list of the government. But their mental needs have to be addressed,” said Dr KV Kishore Kumar, director of The Banyan, an NGO that works for mentally ill.
(Name of the woman concealed as per the Mental Health Care Act, 2017)
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